One year after nationwide strike, China’s crane operators are still risking their lives just to get paid

A nationwide strike on May Day last year highlighted the low pay, long working hours and dangerous working conditions that China’s tower crane operators have to endure on a daily basis. The strike got a lot of publicity but their demands for higher pay and safer work were largely ignored. One year on, little has changed.

The tower crane business got a huge boost in 2008 when the Chinese government announced a four-trillion-yuan stimulus package, largely for infrastructure development, in the wake of the global financial crisis. However, fierce competition soon ate into profit margins and many privately-run construction firms pushed down operators’ pay and cut crane maintenance budgets. Obsolete second-hand tower cranes were sold to less-developed areas, leading to numerous accidents. One study reported 130 such accidents in 2013 alone.

The same problems continue unabated today. So far this year, CLB’s Work Accident Map has recorded ten crane collapses, leading to 15 deaths and 12 injuries. Most of these accidents occurred in less-developed inland provinces where the local governments and the trade unions seem powerless to intervene.

Two workers were injured, for example, when a crane collapsed in Chongqing on 16 April this year, just two days after the local government held a meeting to emphasize the importance of construction site safety.

A month earlier, a crane operator and a maintenance worker died after a crane collapse in the town of Yuanjiang, Hunan, on 14 March. Initial investigations revealed that the construction and maintenance work were actually illegal. As a result, two people were arrested and five officials suspended. And, most recently, in the coastal city of Wenzhou, a crane operator was badly injured and trapped in his cab after a crane collapsed in stormy weather on 24 April. No action was taken to halt work during the storm.

CLB’s recent report on the construction industry highlighted the extreme dangers faced by workers due to the widespread and criminal disregard of health and safety regulations in China. The report called on China’s trade unions to improve workplace safety by negotiating collective contracts with industry federations that clearly stipulate the responsibilities of contractors and ensure that all equipment on site is adequately maintained, workers are properly trained and have the safety equipment they need.

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